Maria C. R. Harrington, Ph.D.


The Harrington Lab:


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Ph.D. in Information Science, School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, 2008

M.S. in Information Science, School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, 1990

B.S. in Economics, Art minor, Carnegie Mellon University, 1988


Ph.D. Dissertation


Harrington, Maria, C. R. (2008). Ph.D. Thesis: Simulated Ecological Environments for Education (SEEE): A Tripartite Model Framework of HCI Design Parameters for Situational Learning in Virtual Environments Available on D-Scholarship@Pitt


U.S. Provisional Patent Application Serial No. 60/816,357 “Simulated Ecological Environments for Education and Methods of Creating and Implementing Same” (June 23, 2006)


Current Employment


Since 2016      University of Central Florida

Associate Professor (Tenured 2022 – Present) Orlando, FL

College of Sciences, Nicholson School of Communication and Media, Games and Interactive Media Program, Digital Media M.A. Program

Secondary Joint Appointment UCF Learning Sciences Cluster (May 2019 – Present)

Graduate Faculty Member, College of Graduate Studies (2016 – Present)

Modeling and Simulation MS and PhD programs (June, 2022 – Present)

Education PhD, Exceptional Education Track program (February, 2023 – Present)

Assistant Professor (2016 – 2022)

College of Arts and Humanities, School of Visual Arts and Design (2016 – 2020)

Graduate Faculty Member, Texts and Technology Ph.D. Program (2016 – 2020)


Principle investigator on several grants developing digital twins of natural environments and the design, development, and evaluation of immersive informal learning applications. Taught in graduate and undergraduate programs, chaired or committee member on graduate student research, mentored, advised undergraduates in research, and developed seven new courses. Service to community includes editorial boards, grant review panels, invited peer reviews, and university, college, school, and department committees. Community service engagement served on parks and science center advisory boards, collaboration with museums and parks to engage the public in learning about the natural world through immersive applications.



Honors and Awards


2023    ACM SIGGRAPH Electronic Theater 50th Year Retrospective Celebration, The Virtual UCF Arboretum (Invited)

2022    University of Central Florida, College of Sciences, Excellence in Research Award

2022    University of Central Florida, Nicholson School of Communication and Media, Outstanding Creative Activity Award

2021    Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT), Learner Engagement Division, Outstanding Digital Learning Artifact Award

2021    Museum and Web International Conference, MW21 GLAMi Award, Finalist in Resources for Scholars and Researchers Category

2020    Museum and Web International Conference, MW20 GLAMi Award, Finalist in Exhibition Media or Experience: Immersive Media (AR/VR/Environmental)

2019    Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Research Associate (Invited, three year appointment)

2018    Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Powdermill Nature Reserve, Artist in Residence Award

2017    University of Central Florida, Office of Research and Commercialization, Mentoring Program Award

2006    University of Pittsburgh, 30th Annual Honors Convocation, Outstanding Graduate Student Award

2005    University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences, Allen Kent Award


Creative Works Overview


Since 2016, The Harrington Lab has produced two major digital twins of natural environments as multistage projects, The Virtual UCF Arboretum Projects and the AR Perpetual Garden Apps Projects. The applications were completed and launched on global digital distribution channels representing an exceptionally high level of product design and project management and broader impact using AR and VR technologies. Several international and national awards, grants, and commercialization have resulted from this effort. The current work is based on a 2003 application, The Virtual Trillium Trail Project, that pioneered the method of using geographical information system (GIS) datasets from ESRI of natural environments, to extract, transform, and load geospatial files into Unreal Tournament to create a MOD application as an early digital twin of the natural environment. Uniquely it visualized biological plot study data immersing the user in a 3D photorealistic geospatial virtual forest. The applications were designed to be use in an experimental research studies and as a validated and reliable test instrument of the real environment. The research design isolated the application’s design factors to measure informal learning outcomes in causal and correlational relationships.  The goals of all of my creative works are to intentionally and deliberately design applications that are both beautiful and functional. The main research focus is on the design, development, and evaluation of immersive informal learning applications using digital twins of the natural environment. Immersion and embodiment design dimensions are explored as new technology enters the augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) off-the-shelf product market. 


My design process is an extension of traditional user centered design to include domain experts, stakeholders, educators, and learners in a multi-cyclical and iterative multidisciplinary co-creative process. I call this process the Expert – Learner – User – Experience (ELUX) process. This process also considers tasks, goals, and objectives for excellent user experience, while integrating innovations in technology for publication and dissemination considerations. Digital distribution channels, legal, and financial constraints are considered important multidimensional design factors. The designs of the resulting applications are evaluated using mixed-methods in IRB research studies for publications in journals and conferences for broader social and educational impact. All projects provided research, funding, awards, commercialization, and educational opportunities. There are several current multidisciplinary collaborative research projects in process across the university in Psychology, Education, and the Modeling and Simulation programs.









The Virtual UCF Arboretum Project (2016 – Present)


The Virtual UCF Arboretum Project is an investigation of the design, development, and evaluation of immersive informal learning applications created to work as an educational simulation field trip. It is unique in that it visualized ESRI geographic information system (GIS) data of native plants and flowers over a large open world to represent 100 hectares (247 acres) of a Central Florida landscape in Epic Games Unreal Engine. The project has several collaborations and partnerships. The application was co-created in a multidisciplinary effort, between Digital Media and the UCF Arboretum team, staff, and faculty in Biology. Research partners are in the department of Psychology and industry.  As an example of an early digital twin of a natural environment, it achieves high information accuracy in the plant models, inventory, and distribution data, with photorealistic detail to match the real environment. The design not only visualized the data, but also made all objects interactive, and using metadata connected graphical objects to the semantic data to produce an interactive learning user interface. The resulting work is an immersive, multimodal, interactive, geospatial data visualization experienced as an embodied digital twin of the real world.


  1. The Virtual UCF Arboretum version 1.0, (2016 – 2021), Epic Games MegaGrant 2020: The original Unreal Engine 4.3 application created in a multidisciplinary effort across Digital Media, Biology, Ecology, and the UCF Arboretum staff.  Several peer-reviewed journal papers, international peer-reviewed conferences papers, awards, and grants have resulted from this effort. Student learning experiences, graduate student research and thesis, and broader impact with the Orlando Science Center, ACM SIGGRAPH, Muse Web, have resulted. The models are being used by M3DVR, Cesium,, Presegis, and others in the commercial markets. Download application (4,510 downloads):  Download FREE plants (450,000 downloads):  Video:


  1. Integration of The Virtual UCF Arboretum with a treadmill and overhead projector to investigate health and wellbeing impacts: UCF ORC VPR Advancement of Early Career Researchers (AECR), (2019 – Present): The Virtual UCF Arboretum was integrated with a normal treadmill and projector, but user interaction experience allows the user free choice in geospatial navigation (360 degree freedom) and to walk in any direction of choice with a normal stride. Such a simple user interface was achieved through connecting and programming hand-controllers to allow the user to push buttons in either hand to control the view display while walking and creating the illusion of control over direction. The study was disrupted during COVID and forced a pilot test online. The lab has only recently reopened to support the larger study.   Video: The Virtual UCF Arboretum VR Headset and Treadmill Project, 2019: GaIM collaboration with Dept. Psychology, COS, UCF


  1. Unreal Engine 5 update for Higher Information Fidelity, Graphical Fidelity, Visual Fidelity, and Immersion, The Virtual UCF Arboretum version 2.0 (2022 – 2023), UCF Research Foundation GAP Fund Award (2022 – 2023): The Virtual UCF Arboretum and all plant models have been updated to work in Unreal Engine 5. The work was invited and featured in ACM SIGGRAPH 2023 Electronic Theater 50th Year Retrospective Celebration. Video:


  1. Integration of The Virtual UCF Arboretum with Infinadack’s Omnidirectional Treadmill, High Immersion and High Embodiment, (2020 – Present), The Virtual UCF Arboretum was integrated with an Infinadeck omnidirectional treadmill and an HTC Vive VR headset in a collaboration with M3DVR, a local Orlando startup. The application configuration supported a graduate student thesis research study, and an paper was accepted for publication at I/ITSEC 2023. Video:


The AR Perpetual Garden App Project (2017 – Present)


The AR Perpetual Garden App is an augmented reality app that was launched on the Carnegie Museum of Natural History Apple iTunes and Google Play Android stores in 2018. As one of the first to use SLAM technology (ARCore and ARKit SDKs) it visualized a forest understory as a type of a native botanical garden and as a virtual extension to a museum diorama. It is unique as it offers an immersive, multimodal, interactive, embodied experience (e.g. AR Holodeck). Several IRB approved informal learning and user experience study evaluations were conducted onsite with the public, and resulted in several papers published at ACM, IEEE, journals, and awards. The study showed the importance of design factors of story and facts, and the correlation of immersive AR to story and facts to drive higher learning outcomes. Emotional outcomes were stronger in the AR condition when compared to the control, and emotions are correlated to learning outcomes. Download application (29,906 downloads):  UCF Story photos: Video:


The Virtual Trillium Trail Project (2008)


The Virtual Trillium Trail Project was a modification to Unreal Tournament used to create one of the first data visualizations of a nature preserve. Part of a Ph.D. dissertation in information science (2003-2008), mixed-methods were used in the research design to measure usability, emotional, behavioral, and learning outcomes influenced by design factors in an immersive and embodied virtual field trip.


The pilot study showed the real field trip to be a superior learning environment overall as there were more salient signals in the real environment. However, the virtual matched real emotional and learning outcomes when the content was identical. Evidence of priming, transfer, and reinforcement were measured, indicating that the best educational practices are to use the virtual and real experiences together to prime, transfer, and reinforce.

Visual Fidelity (high information fidelity, high graphical fidelity, high visual fidelity, and high immersion) and Navigational Freedom (360 free choice in navigation and exploration and high embodiment) showed significant statistical interaction and effects on emotional, behavioral, and learning outcomes. The combined conditions of both High Visual Fidelity  and High Navigational Freedom  resulted in superior Knowledge Gained on tests, (Mean = 37.44% increase in test scores, SD = 13.88) when compared to the Low Visual Fidelity and Low Navigational Freedom conditions (Mean = 20.93 % increase in test scores, SD = 13.36).  The study showed the importance of the design choices on learning outcomes, independent of all other factors.


The results show emotional correlations to learning outcomes. Beauty, as a factor in the design, is correlated to awe and wonder, and awe and wonder is correlated to higher learning outcomes, thus suggesting a complex, multidimensional model for immersive informal learning application design effectiveness.





Published Refereed Research


International Published Journal Articles (Peer-Reviewed)


International Published In Proceedings (Peer-Reviewed Conferences)


National Published In Proceedings (Peer-Reviewed Conferences)


Regional Published In Proceedings (Peer-Reviewed Conferences)


Scholarly Presentation Activity


Invited Workshops


Invited Guest Panel


Invited Talks National


Invited Talks Regional


Art Shows


Press Coverage with National or Economic Impact


Press Coverage with Regional Impact